SENATORS Nancy Binay and Ralph Recto on Friday said they were puzzled over the Palace’s definition of “economic stimulus” after it impounded and diverted some P14.5 billion meant to build up 22 key airports and seaports to projects with little or no economic impact.
At the hearing of the Senate committee on finance, chaired by Senator Francis Escudero, Binay and Recto took turns in grilling Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who testified on the virtues of the Disbursement Acceleration Program, parts of which the Supreme Court has declared as unconstitutional.
Questions from Binay and Recto seemed to put Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya on defensive, who professed repeatedly that he was “still a congressman” at the time.
When Binay demanded that Abad produce an official “competent enough to answer the questions” about the airport, he got no help from Abaya’s predecessor in the Transportatio Department, now Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who was seated in the VIP gallery.
Recto expressed dismay over the excuses that Abad and Abaya offered.
“I could not understand why the repair and rehabilitation of the airports, seaports and lighthouses would be abandoned when these could have accelerated and spurred economic growth,” Recto told the panel.
Addressing Abaya, Recto said he was “impressed” at the way the budget for the airports, including the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal I, tagged one of the worst airports in the world, was presented to Congress.
“I was impressed. It was presented in a way that gave the impression that everything had been threshed.... It was even itemized. So the budget was approved on that premise,” Recto said.
Binay said based on the documents that the Palace submitted to the Supreme Court, Abaya wrote a letter to Abad complying to the Department of Budget and Management’s request to provide the DBM with a list of projects for withdrawal.
Abaya told the Budget Department that there were P6.064 billion worth or projects from the 2012 budget and P8.5 billion
Thus, Binay said, Abaya told the DBM his department could offer a total of P14.5 billion worth of projects from the 2012 and 2103 budgets, including the budget for 22 airports, seaports and lighthouses nationwide.
“On these shelved projects, did you even conduct research [about whether]... these projects have a multiplier effect compared to those you have approved under DAP?” Binay asked Abad.
Abad said the government usually deploys an account management team to check on the projects to avoid being accused of being arbitrary in declaring projects “slow-moving.”
“We don’t do this unilaterally. We don’t just simply say give us that budget. We talk to the agencies and find out in June or July, if they think they can push through with the project. Sometimes, Public Works will tell us that the right of way issues are still in court, and if we wait for that, that could take us into next year. Get the budget and use it elsewhere,” Abad said.
Abad admitted that the DOTC’s P14.5 billion budget for airports was consolidated under the administration’s “pooled savings” for the DAP.
“Last week, a septic tank in NAIA I exploded. Yet we shelved these projects for another project,” Binay remarked.
Abad said the reason for the delay in implementing the projects was that they found “structural defects in the facility.”
“Aren’t you supposed to have studied and checked on the projects before you come to Congress and seek funding for these? So why do you need to study the NAIA 1 again?” Binay asked.
When Abad said the NAIA 1 buidling needed to undergo a stress test, Binay demanded to know where the funds for the testing would come from.
“Wasn’t that part of the budget for the NAIA 1 terminal rehabilitation [that was impounded]?” she said.
Abad then turned to Abaya and asked him to explain.
Abaya explained that the department initially planned to simply renovate the terminal, but then the Public Works Department noted that it was a 30-year-old building and there might be structural problems.
Abaya also said they wanted to rehabilitate the airport without shutting it down, and that the work would be complete by the end of February 2015.
But Binay also demanded Abaya and Abad explain where the budget of P549.18 million for upgrading and rehabilitating the passenger concourse, waiting area, restrooms and lobby went.
“This project was shelved. Have you been to our airports? They are shameful, but this project was withdrawn for the DAP,” Binay said.
Abaya said he was not yet Transportation secretary at the time when the project was withdrawn, and that he merely carried out the program of his predecessor, Roxas.
“What was the cause of delay for this project? Is it hard to rehabilitate a toilet?” Binay demanded.
Abad said the delay might have been caused by the administration’s practice of procuring all materials for multiple projects from a common source to save money.
“But wasn’t this the reason for DAP – that we needed to accelerate the program? I don’t see why these projects didn’t fit that criteria,” Binay said.
“Well, the toilets and the restrooms weren’t a recipient of DAP,” Abaya said.
“That’s what I mean. You took that funding and gave it to the DAP, am I correct? You withdrew the P549 million,” Binay replied.
Abaya again told her that she was still in Congress at the time.
“So who is competent enough to answer?” Binay shot back.
“What happened then was that in anticipation, we, at the time... admitted that it could not be implemented,” Abaya said.
“Why not?” Binay said.
““I was in Congress then, ma’am,” Abaya said again.
Abad came to the Abaya’s rescue, saying that the DAP was not meant just for accelerating spending but also obtaining savings for the government by “spending wisely.”
“In terms of service, many would be helped if the facilities in the airport were fixed. So it meets the two criteria for DAP projects,” Binay insisted.
But Abad said the government chose to delay the projects so that it could go for a “bulk purchase” to obtain greater savings.
“This is to make sure nothing is wasted and as much as possible, we get optimum results from the investment,” Abad said.
“So why ask this amount from Congress?” Binay retorted.
“Didn’t you tell Congress that we needed P549 million for this project, which Congress approved? Then in the middle of the year, you will say you want to go for bulk purchases? This shows a lack of foresight when it comes to planning and budgeting,” Binay added.
“Who is at fault? Don’t you agree that somebody must answer for the delayed project?”
Escudero broke the exchange at this point, and reminded Binay that the funds withdrawn also included seaports and lighthouses.
“So I think the question really is, on the part of Congress, why did the Executive propose that to begin with, only to tell the Secretary of DBM halfway through the year that we will take those funds away?” Escudero said.
Escudero reminded Abad that when he was still a congressman and the chairman of the House committee on appropriations, this was a common complaint among lawmakers.
“The Aquino administration resolved to be fair, and kept proposing budgets for the Education Department for 15,000 or 20,000 teachers, year in and year out, and we approve it. But year in year out DepEd only hires 8,000 or 7,000—are the rest considered savings?”
Escudero also reminded Abad that for the 2014 budget, the number for teachers was reduced because everybody knew the DepEd could not hire 15,000 teachers at the start of the year.
But in the case of the airports, seaports and lighthouses, Escudero said, there was a specific list of projects worth P14.5 billion for two years, which was later withdrawn.
Abaya said that in the case of the NAIA, because of the structural problems, they had to hire a consultant from abroad who could certify a “performance-based design.”
“So as required by the procurement law, we had to publish, we had to get various interested parties, and eventually we procured,” Abad said.
But they also had to make sure the airport would not be closed during the renovation, which added to the delay, he added.
Abad said the problems were such that “even the best of the secretaries couldn’t foresee” when they submitted the budget to Congress.
“For the toilets, what really took long was the program of works of thousands of comfort rooms in all LTO, LTFRB, airports and ports—that took time. In hindsight now I see the DOTC really lacked the organization and personnel to handle the budget that we had to push out all these projects. We are currently adjusting the organization, hiring people because it’s only now in this administration that we have the opportunity of resources, of really catching up on infrastructure,” Abaya said.
But Escudero chided Abad, saying two-thirds of the term of President Benigno Aquino III was gone.
“You only have one-third remaining, even less than that, isn’t it a bit late for you to realize these things at this time?” Escudero said.
Abaya said the lighthouses had right of way issues—leading Binay to conclude that the administration was not serious about the projects they submit to Congress. “The mere fact that there were right of way problems, why ask for the budget when you know these issues stand in the way of those project?” she said.
On Friday, Binay said Abad was not off the hook, even though he survived the grilling in the Senate.
“Somebody should be held liable. Remember that this is the people’s money that we are talking about and there is still P90 billion missing in the government’s ‘savings’. Secretary Abad owes the
Filipino people an explanation on where these funds went,” Binay said.
While the government pooled P237 billion in savings since 2010, she said only P167 billion went to the DAP.
Binay said they were also able to establish during last Thursday’s Senate hearing on DAP that although the government approved P157 billion proposed projects under the acceleration program, only P144.3 billion was released under DAP.
She pointed out in the same hearing that some appropriations did not fall under the Department of Budget and Management’s list of 116 projects funded by the controversial program.
Based on records, DBM gave the Commission on Elections additional funding worth P4.1 billion intended to be used to purchase precinct count optical scan machines for the 2013 mid-term polls.
The request for additional funding was made after its proposed P17 billion budget was cut down to P7 billion.
In one of the Senate hearings, Commission on Audit chiefperson Grace Pulido-Tan admitted they received P5 million for a vehicle purchse supposedly taken from the P143 million funding for the agency’s IT infrastructure program and hiring of litigation experts.
The opposition senator asked Abad why COA’s vehicle request was not reflected in the DAP list.
Binay said she was also surprised to learn from Abad that the P4.1 billion given to Comelec did not come from DAP and it appeared that—aside from the list of projects whose funds came from the DAP—there was another savings mechanism where funds for other government projects are sourced.
“The funding released to Comelec and COA were not listed under the 116 projects funded by DAP. It appears that there is another list of projects—projects which are being funded by DBM from regular savings,” Binay said.
Binay said Abad failed to answer when asked if the funds came from the DAP.
“We’re not yet done in asking where the government’s savings went. Secretary Abad and the DBM should account for all of these savings—where did they go and who benefitted from them,” Binay added.
Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who remains jailed for a P10 billion plunder case, said the Senate lost another chance to redeem itself and to rise above partisan politics during the Senate hearing on the DAP.
“Lucky for Secretary Abad, there were a lot of members of the Senate who made the task of explaining the rationale and defending the implementation of the DAP easy for him. At times, all he has to do was to concur and merely agree with the defense prepared by the administration allies,” said Estrada, who watched the entire proceedings at the detention facility where he and Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. are being held.
“It was quite observable that with the present composition of the committee and the chamber in general, the hearing looked like a well scripted and rehearsed production,” he said.
He pointed out that the scenario was not dissimilar to the Blue Ribbon Committee’s series of investigations on the alleged pork barrel scam where the obvious bias and partiality of some of the members showed.
“Save for a few colleagues, like Senator Nancy Binay... the Senate seemed like a rah-rah squad for the Budget Department,” Estrada said.
Escudero brushed aside criticism that Thursday’s hearing was a “deodorant” for the DAP.
Interviewed over ANC’s Headstart, Escudero said nobody can dictate upon the senators what to ask.
“If they are allies or if they will take [the government] to task for DAP, we cannot limit and control that,” said Escudero.
Escudero said the Senate hearing was an important venue where the government was afforded the opportunity to answer questions hounding the DAP and the public a chance to hear their answers.
He said Abad, who has been tagged the architect of DAP, was also given a chance to answer questions from the senators.
When asked if he was satisfied with Abad’s opening statement justifying the DAP, Escudero said that was “water under the bridge.”
“ Whether he disagrees with it, how correct were they or how they see the court as wrong, the court had already decided. The question—moving on, moving forward, is what are we going to do? Which among the DAP violated the Constitution as penned by by the Supreme Court decision? Which of them were not wrong?” said Escudero.
He also asked what the government would do to rectify the wrongs cited by the Supreme Court.
“Will they continue ith the project? Will they pay the contractors? In the 2015 budget, how will we address this and be compliant with the Supreme Court decision?” he added.
He said that from the hearing, they were able to establish that it is the President that decides where to put the funds after going through deliberations with a Cabinet cluster, based on the inputs of the secretaries concerned.
Escudero also played down the violations of the Constitution in the DAP program, saying that the previous administration was worse.
Also on Friday, Health Secretary Enrique Ona expressed disappointment with Binay for criticizing the P70 million given to the Lung Center of the Philippines for stem cell research.
“I’m so disappointed with the senator to be saying that... rather than supporting opportunities for our doctors to do all types of research, not just for stem cell,” Ona said.
Binay had asked if the money would be better spent on hospital beds in public hospitals.
But Ona said reseach cannot be compared to beds.
“When we talk about the amount of research, it’s about the effects on the lives of the people. So we cannot compare this, for example, to what she’s saying about the lack of hospital beds. Since we started (in 2010), we have distributed more than 8,000 beds all over the country,” Ona said.
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